This morning, a boda driver (motorcycle taxi) and I philosophized about papers. First, we talked about the papers needed for a formal job and then about the papers needed to travel. My mind started wandering.
I feel incredibly lucky, often even ashamed, to have a passport that makes it possible for me to quite easily travel almost the entire world. I didn’t have to put in a lot of effort to get it – all I need to do is renew it on time and bring a horrible passport picture in which I may not smile. When I apply for passport renewal, I know exactly what it will cost me and when I will be able to pick up my passport.
The boda driver changed the topic to papers in the form of money. He had driven well. I gave him an extra piece of paper. A tip in the form of a one thousand Ugandan shillings note – which equals about twenty-five eurocents.
In Uganda, a lot of people don’t have a passport. Many people also don’t seem too busy with it. Why would you need one? It’s expensive and you may lose it. In 2015, the National Identification and Registration Authority called for mass registration in order to make all Ugandans get a National Identification Card. I found figures that said that last year, 25.9 million Ugandans were registered in the National Identification Register. It is estimated that over 17 million Ugandans are not. Mind you – the largest part of those 17 million Ugandans are below 16 years old and don’t (yet) need a national ID. But there also are a lot of adults, of which relatively many elderly people and women, without a valid ID. Nowadays, this can bring you into trouble when wanting to access, for instance, health care services. When you don’t know (one of) your parents or grandparents or their clan, or when there are issues in the family that make you hesitant of sharing certain information, getting a national ID can be quite complicated. Leave alone getting a passport.
People like Nairah are confronted with the complexities of getting a passport.
Nairah was our nanny from January till June last year. In my mind, at first it was crazy to get a nanny to live in with us. (I was once a nanny myself and at that place and time, only extremely rich families had nannies). But I needed to look for work and an income. I obviously couldn’t leave my one year old daughter alone, the relationship with my ex’s family was tense (otherwise they would’ve surely helped out) and it seemed easier to look for a nanny than a day care. I was used to seeing nannies in other Ugandan families but I just hadn’t pictured myself there.
I knew people called their nannies ‘helpers’, ‘sisters’, ‘aunties’ and ‘maids’. (I hated that last term). I had also heard a lot of people give unsolicited advice about nannies. Some said I needed to get an older nanny who had had kids herself, others said I needed to get a young girl from the village. She’d be unexperienced but I would be able to ‘mould’ her. Everyone gave me different advice on what a nanny should get paid weekly. Most people told me a nanny should be working six days a week and have only Sundays off. I was surprised how even the Dutch families I spoke with here, would have their nannies work six days a week (something I thought most Dutch people wouldn’t allow because I thought five days was the norm). People told me I should be very clear on what I want my nanny to do and what not, what to touch and what not and which rooms of the house I’d allow them to enter. The nanny should not only take care of the kids but clean the house, cook and do laundry as well. Oh, and nannies do crazy things when their hosts are away from home. I’d better take that as a fact.
I never knew what to think of all these pieces of advice. I was desperate to get a grip on my life and it sounded pretty scary to me to let another person in. I was heartbroken about my relationship break-up and had no idea if I was strong enough to cope with another adult person in the house whom I needed to give directions while I was still so unsure about the direction in which my life was going. But I had to start somewhere.
Nairah was the cousin of a guy who helped me out when my gas stove wasn’t working. I knew other people who knew the guy and I trusted him when he said that he thought his cousin may be the right person to come and stay with Nyla and me. If only for her name, which was almost the same as my daughter’s. Most Ugandans don’t even distinguish between the two names; the “L” and the “R” are often mixed up here.
I will not elaborate on how we found our way together. It wasn’t always an easy ride. But Nairah became like a hero to Nyla and a sister to me. Nowadays, I am confident we would do anything for each other. We missed her a lot when we were in the Netherlands for the last seven months.
Although we’d missed Nairah, I was not sure whether she could come and live with us again this time. I wanted Nyla to go to a day care now because she would be making more friends, I wasn’t sure whether I could financially manage to have Nairah around and I thought that Nairah may get bored at home if Nyla was in school and I was at work.
My wandering mind goes too fast this morning. Back to stories about papers.
Even in our search for a daycare, papers played an interesting role. We visited five day cares/preschools. It became a habit that we would enter a school, Nyla would shout ‘hallo allemaal!’ (‘hi everyone!’ in Dutch), leave kids staring at us in amazement, I would talk to the registrar or principal and we would receive a bunch of papers to take home that described things like the school’s mission, calendar and school fees.
The school fees that those papers mentioned varied widely. At every school here, you pay in terms. But the papers mentioned extra fees for registration, food, school uniforms, sports kits, ballet classes, tissue boxes, binders and more. (And obviously there is no ‘kinderopvangtoeslag’). I chose a preschool that was international but not too expensive and where I felt good about the teachers. Nyla would be the only mixed-race kid in her group, with mostly Ugandan children and some from Eritrea. I felt a couple of teachers and kids look at us with funny eyes but Nyla’s teacher Patricia was one of those rare people who didn’t seem busy with our skin colour at all. Not in an adoring way, nor in a negative way. She made me feel like just another human being. Nyla instantly liked her too. I carefully went through the paperwork of Nyla’s new second home; I had a close look at the fees and calendar with holidays and went to the bank to pick up a wad of cash to pay for the first term.
What Nyla’s school papers had forgotten to mention, was that after one week of school, she would already have a week of holidays. We had started somewhere halfway the term and obviously there was a ‘mid-term holiday’. So, there we were; Nyla had just started to get into the rhythm, I had started to work a bit and when I picked her up on Friday afternoon and said: ‘see you on Monday’ to one of the teachers, the teacher told us that there would be no one around on Monday.
I decided that now was the time to call Nairah whether she could stay with us again. It would be for a week. I explained that I wasn’t sure whether I could offer her more than that for now but I would pay her well and make sure we’d have a great time that week. She told me to ask her older brother whom she was staying with, which felt weird but why not – and so I called James and we agreed on the phone that Nairah was my sister too and could come to us.
On Monday evening, when I came back from my first long day of work while Nyla and Nairah had stayed home together, Nairah told me that she had been invited for a passport interview the next day. I knew she had been busy applying for a passport since the day we left Uganda seven months ago. We had been talking about her dreams to go abroad and work from a country where she could make more money – and I had often listened to her and advised her, sometimes only half believing her stories but always trying to help her move forward. Often, it wasn’t her who came up with illogical stories but other people who had confused her mind. The latest story was that she was in the process of going to Canada for work. Someone who worked for the Ugandan government was scouting Ugandan girls to go there. I knew she probably hadn’t told her brother James about her plans to go abroad and I decided to keep my mouth shut and ponder if I thought it was a realistic idea. One evening when we were seated on our sofa, I started scrolling through YouTube and found a horribly cheesy 45 minute documentary about Canada that we watched together. Nairah had never seen any pictures before of what Canada actually looked like.
But, so, her passport.
Nairah said that the passport procedure was almost done and asked me whether she could go for the interview on Tuesday. Although I had planned on working, I didn’t have any work meetings (yet) and I couldn’t say no to her. I tried to estimate the likelihood that the interview would yield any results by asking her questions such as whether she had heard more people about how such an interview goes, whether she had given her fingerprints and whether she had already taken passport photos. I had no idea how the procedure would go exactly, every time it seemed different again, but something felt ok about how they were handling the application this time and I was willing to help Nairah and see where it would take her in the process.
Nairah had to go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, a place I know well because I did a dozen visa renewals there. I know the terrible lines in front of the building complex, the mixed feelings I get when I see white people around there because some are horribly rude and not self-conscious and the mixed feelings I get from seeing the Ugandan government officials taking their time to process paperwork just to show that they have power. They will delay your procedure or make you stress or pay more if you give them any feelings of disrespect (in a way, that's fair enough). I also feel uncomfortable about the many police men and government officials there walking around with guns – although I learned that they do do their job of protecting Uganda well and many are in for a nice chat if you look past their uniforms and AK-47s.
On Tuesday morning, we decided to go to the Ministry of Internal Affairs altogether because (sadly) we figured it may help Nairah skip the long line when police at the entrance would see my white skin. (I see this as a case of misusing my resources but for the sake of someone else and therefore justified). Nyla, Nairah and I left the house looking all fresh and with our sunglasses on. A boda driver who had taken me to work on Monday, had given me his number. I called him to ask whether he could take us to the ministry and also bring another boda man. I would take Nyla on the back of one of the motor cycles, while Nairah would go on the back of the other. I had told Nairah I would pay for our transport if she paid for her own passport pictures. She was happy, agreed and told me she had already paid for the passport procedure.
We were dropped right in front of the building complex. Bodas are not allowed to stop there, which I actually knew, and our (big and slow) boda driver got beaten on his back by one of the police officers as soon as I had lifted Nyla of the boda. Angrily, he drove a little down the road. For a second I was in shock, it was a pretty hard hit – and then I reminded myself that I should focus on Nyla, just run to the guy for his money and look out for Nairah. The driver seemed not too bothered about him being beaten anymore but did ask for double the money we agreed on. Papers. Again. I was stressed and couldn’t think clearly so just gave him the money. The same police officer that had beaten the boda driver on his back let us enter and skip a part of the line, as we had hoped for. I hoped it was because he felt bad about the beating or because we had a kid with us and not because of my skin colour.
Nyla and I waited outside one of the buildings while Nairah entered one of the lines inside the building complex. I found a place in the shade, behind a lot of cars, where not many people saw us. A police officer came and started talking to us. I tried to hide my shyness and fear of his weapon and the conversation became a nice chat about the north of Uganda. We sat there for about 1,5 hours while Nairah updated us via WhatsApp but there was little progress. Nyla got tired of the wait, started annoying the police officer and I decided I would take her home. At least Nairah was inside the ministry and her chances of getting her passport were increasing. On the way out, we found another boda guy that we knew. He took us home and when I paid him for the ride, he gave me a note back because he said it was too much. It wasn’t even half of what we had given the guy in the morning.
After about an hour and a half, Nairah returned home too. We had been waiting outside on the veranda because I had forgotten that Nairah had the keys to our apartment – but at least the weather was great and Nyla had slept on the sofa of our veranda. Nairah was annoyed. It had taken too long and she still didn’t have her passport. But she had done the ‘interview’, which meant she had spoken with a government official and in that talk even called her dad to confirm things about her clan and background. Although her dad isn’t her biological dad, this had gone well. I felt happy that Nairah didn’t get too disappointed.
After a lot of stories that I couldn’t follow and Nairah showing me vague messages for two days, on Friday morning Nairah received a WhatsApp message with a picture of her printed passport. We double checked if everything looked real and concluded that the passport was ready indeed. I started smiling at the thought of Nairah leaving with a passport after one week of staying with us. She told me that the lady who had also told her to come for an interview on Tuesday, would text her when she could come and pickup her little bright blue booklet (here it’s not red anymore). I should just go to work and we would be in touch.
By 3 pm, Nairah still hadn’t heard of the lady. We knew the offices would close at 5 pm and I think both of us started preparing ourselves mentally that in the end, she would not get her passport before the weekend. I told Nairah that it was frustrating but that she wouldn’t need the passport anytime soon anyways. It would just give her a push, a sparkle of hope that one day in the future her dreams may come true – but for the rest the passport would probably just lay on her bedside table for now.
Then, by 3.30 pm, Nairah suddenly called me and said that her name had been called out at the Ministery of Internal Affairs passport pick-up counter. I felt a shot of adrenaline rush through my body and my mind started thinking quickly. If I had to travel home first, Nairah would never make it to the Ministery of Internal Affairs on time. What other solutions could I think of? Then my excitement turned into frustration. How on earth could they expect her to suddenly be there!? I got pissed. Nairah told me Nyla was asleep and for a second I heard us thinking about the same thing in silence. But no – she would not leave Nyla alone. I told Nairah I would come home as soon as possible but that I didn’t know how we could solve this issue so suddenly. I put my laptop and other work stuff in my bag and took a boda home.
The boda driver that took me home was faster than lightning. I didn’t even notice it at first. I was slowly sinking into the weekend and processing all that had happened during the week. Then, when I looked at the time just before we reached our home, I thought of Nairah again. If this boda driver would take her back to town, she might just make it. So when we got home, I jumped off the boda, told him to wait and got Nairah. She had not expected anything anymore and hesitated for a moment, said she might waste money on bodas for nothing but then decided to still try and get her passport. The boda driver was happy with another job and with Nairah seated behind him, he left off even faster than when he had picked me up.
There are many times in Uganda in which I feel like the saying ‘hard work pays off’ does not count. There are so many people in this country who work very hard and still don’t get what they deserve. Thankfully, there are exceptions. Around 6 pm, Nairah returned with the biggest glow on her face I had ever seen. She had stood her ground when an authoritative guy had told her to go home, shown the picture of her passport in her WhatsApp messages, dodged a lady who told her she needed to sign more papers before she could get her passport, called the government official she knew would put in a good word for her and found a guy with access to the safe containing new passports sympathizing for her – and finally give her what she had worked so hard for.
Nyla’s holiday that wasn’t mentioned on paper, lead us to connect with Nairah again, who in our presence could connect more easily with the people she wanted to connect with and ultimately, she got the papers that she wanted. In the end, we were all happy.
It’s all about papers. And connections.
Oh, and in Uganda you might need to stay very focused to make sure you don't lose these papers or connections.